- The Washington Times - Friday, March 23, 2012

It can begin with a sixth-grade student who walks into a science class in awe of a table full of lab equipment such as meters and beakers, an eighth-grader who discovers how bridges are made or a high school senior who designs her very own robot. Even the simplest of projects can ignite the creative spirit in a child, who could go on to have a startling insight or make a groundbreaking invention that could change lives, create entire industries and build a better future.

Unfortunately, studies show that the U.S. doesn’t have enough students who are interested in pursuing the science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) degrees that are so essential to achieving success in the future. And even among students who begin college in one of these disciplines, many do not graduate with these degrees. According to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, just 6 in 10 students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field actually complete a degree.

This shortage of STEM-educated students presents our nation with a massive challenge. Look at the area of national defense. We honor our men and women in uniform who bravely protect our country. Behind them is the engineer or mathematician who designed the equipment on their shoulders or the technology in their pockets. Here at home, families and businesses rely on the Internet, telecommunications and information databases every day, and it takes workers with advanced cybersecurity skills to keep these systems safe and secure.

The fact is, as other countries become more advanced in their technologies, America must not only keep up, but be the global leader in generating the technologies of the future. That future will be ours only if we build a steady pipeline of STEM- educated students. Today in the U.S., just 16 percent of graduates receive degrees in STEM fields, compared to China, where 52 percent of graduates earn degrees in these critical fields. It is staggering statistics like these that demonstrate the challenge our nation faces.

In 2008, there were more than 60,000 engineers working in federal agencies such as the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security. They are the civil engineers who design buildings that can stand up against natural disasters. They are the computer engineers who protect our critical infrastructure from cyberattacks. It isn’t just engineers; there are mathematicians and scientists in the Department of Defense whom we should thank for the discoveries that have changed the world, including lifesaving medical research and the Internet. If we don’t continue to help students find joy in subjects like engineering, science or math, we won’t have enough talent to fill these jobs and the thousands of others in private industry that are critical for our national security.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the U.S. continues to lag behind other countries in these crucial fields - in math, the U.S. ranks 30th among advanced countries across the globe; in science, the U.S. ranks 23rd in this group. To address this serious problem, President Obama recently made a commitment to graduate 1 million more science, technology, engineering and math students in the next 10 years. He also called on the public and private sectors to work together to inspire students to pursue these critical disciplines.

States such as Virginia and Kentucky also are stepping up to address our nation’s STEM workforce gaps. Earlier this year, Gov. Bob McDonnell announced an initiative to strengthen Virginia’s cybersecurity sector, which included a focus on improving the STEM education pipeline to prepare students for the jobs of the future. Additionally, Neustar, a technology-focused provider of critical telecommunication services, partnered with Sen. Mark Warner and Mr. McDonnell in Virginia and Rep. John A.Yarmuth of Kentucky to improve STEM education and digital literacy in schools throughout these states. But this is just the beginning.

As one of the nation’s leading technology companies and an employer of hundreds of engineers and scientists, our company knows that inspiring students to pursue careers in these fields is crucial for our nation’s safety and security as well as a healthy economy. In fact, our company continues to hire engineers and computer programmers all the time, but today we have more jobs available than qualified applicants. Fixing this problem will take bringing all stakeholders to the table - federal, state and local governments; educators and guidance counselors; the private sector; and parents. There is not one, simple, easy fix - but a fix is essential. We stand ready to do our part to help graduate more students in STEM fields to give them the opportunity to create an incredible future.

Lisa Hook is the president and CEO of Neustar, a technology company headquartered in Sterling, Va. She is a member of the President’s National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee.

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